Problems of Scale

July 15, 2009

So, I’m currently watching Battlestar Galactica from start to finish. I just finished season 2. I’ll probably make a more comprehensive post when I’m done with the series – in fact, I’m considering writing a series of posts similar to my one about epic metal back in November 2007, this time about my favorite TV shows (of which BG is definitely one). But right now, I’m just going to talk about something that bugs me about BG – and almost all sci-fi, really.

That is the problem of scale. Particularly, that science fiction universes almost always completely fail at actually depicting what the stated facts imply their universe would be like. Consider:

Up through season 2 on BG, there’s been action on four planetary bodies so far by my count, these being Caprica, the unnamed moon Starbuck crashes on, Kobol, and New Caprica. All of these are presumably about as large as Earth – certainly no smaller than the moon, since they all appear to have roughly Earth-like gravity. And yet:

  • There seems to be only one city on Caprica, in which two groups of characters, separated at the beginning of the series, meet by chance even though neither of them is searching for the other, and only one forest, where a group of characters trying to rescue those left behind on Caprica are able to find them in a matter of hours.
  • When Starbuck crashes onto the moon, the Cylon raider she shoots down happens to land within walking distance of her own wreck. And it is considered plausible (though not likely) that a few dozen Vipers can fly over the surface of the moon and (not even using sensors, but rather relying on visual contact!) find Starbuck and rescue her before she runs out of air.
  • When the Raptor crashes on the surface of Kobol, it just happens to land in the middle of the ancient City of the Gods. And that’s exactly where the rescue party goes to find them, even though they had no way of knowing that’s where they’d be.
  • When they settle on New Caprica, an effort at least is made to explain why everything is so small – only a small portion of the planet is inhabitable. And that’s where they settle, and who cares about the rest? So New Caprica is the most believable of the planets.

There’s more problems, on a deeper level. There are the 12 Colonies, each with their own distinct culture (though I can only remember a few distinct characterizations – Gemenon is religious, Caprica is the capital, Saggitaron was oppressed, uh…). But these are entire planets! Does anyone think that if there were eleven other planets as densely populated as Earth, that that would mean Earth’s culture would become homogenous? Hell no. There would just be many, many more cultures out there.

Part of the problem, of course, is the very nature of the show; it wants to depict a civilization of only a few thousand people travelling across a distance of hundreds of light-years (and this is what it would take, nevermind the Cylon’s claim that they were “an entire light-year away” when they found out where New Caprica was. Gimme a break. Alpha Centauri – the nearest planet to Earth – is 4.6 light-years away). Each different planet and star system is really more on the level of a city-state in Greece in the ancient Mediterranean. Or, in what is a more apt analogy, on the level of the 12 tribes of Israel when they made the exodus from Egypt. BG never really wanted to portray what a civilization that spread across 12 planets and multiple star systems would be like.

But of course this isn’t just a problem with Battlestar Galactica. Consider Star Trek – every episode I’ve seen involving a planet treats it like there is one city on the planet, just one civilization to deal with. Star Wars is the same way; Tattoine is “small village in the desert”, Coruscant is “large city”, Naboo is “seaside city”, etc.

In other words, we achieve diversity at the interplanetary level – which is what we want, since this is space opera – at the expense of actual planets. Instead we get a bunch of city-states floating in space with blank space between in which to fight and arbitrary rules for how long it takes to get from one planet to another.

The best attempt to avoid this problem that I’ve seen is Gene Wolfe’s Solar Cycle (the three Books of the New Sun, Long Sun, and Short Sun). BotNS takes place on Urth, which is Earth, but not just “on Earth” – it’s in South America, in the city of Nessus, ruled by the Autarch, whose lands are bounded on the north by the Ascians. The BotLS takes place entirely within a generation starship made from a hollowed out asteroid, but it involves a number of different city-states all living inside it – Viron, Trivigaunte, Mainframe, etc. The BotSS actually involves the main character going on an Odyssey-like journey to a bunch of different cities on the planet Blue. Etc.

The question, I suppose, is whether this is a problem that needs fixing. It is an irritant, to a certain extent – I know I laughed at that line about “an entire light-year away” in Battlestar Galactica. But for the most part we manage to ignore it. Would we really be better off forcing BG to take place on a single planet, or perhaps a single star system with a few planets in it, and modifying the entire plot to deal with the rule-change?


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